Before I retired, I worked for a Big 4 accounting firm for over 40 years, including 30 years as a partner. Public accounting is a service industry with lots of high-maintenance clients where things can easily go awry.
When things go wrong, how a business responds can have a lasting impact on its customer relationships. This is especially true if the problem was the result of an actual or perceived service issue. When the problem is not caused by the organization itself, the business has an unusual opening to build a strong relationship with its customer by either solving the problem or by providing insight into the problem’s resolution. In either event, it is an opportunity to show that a business cares about its customers.
About 20 years ago, my firm devised an approach for dealing with these types of circumstances when they arise. They called the concept “moments that matter.” If a business does not treat a moment that matters properly, its relationship with its customer can easily sour. Conversely, if the business shows it cares and helps solve the problem, the relationship will likely grow.
One of my first experiences with a moment that mattered was over 40 years ago when I was newly promoted to a managerial position. I was assigned to work on a longtime prestigious client of the firm. Unfortunately, I found that my predecessor made a mistake when preparing the prior year’s tax returns. When we prepared amended returns, the client owed additional tax, penalties and interest.
Needless to say, the client was upset. It was a moment that mattered to them. Had I told the client that I will discuss the matter with the partner in charge of the account and we will find a way to make them whole, I am sure the client would have been happy and my relationship with them would have gotten stronger.
Unfortunately, I responded with defensive comments which not only did not solve their problem, but also made the client feel that we did not care about their plight. The next day, the partner in charge of the account came into my office and told me that the client no longer wanted me to serve them. The following year they changed accounting firms. That was a painful lesson for me.
In the later years of my career, in my capacity as a senior partner, I was inserted into numerous troubled client situations involving moments that mattered. I saw to it that my team took ownership of problems and that we worked diligently to solve them. This saved and improved numerous client relationships.
Increasingly, in today’s world of compressed margins adversely affecting profitability, many businesses are cutting corners on customer service in order to save costs. It is especially frustrating to deal with a human who does not care after having to go through the organization’s automated responses.
Last year, I purchased an item with a one-year warranty. When I purchased the item, the sales person told me if there is a problem with the product just return it to the store, which would replace it. Four months later when the product failed, their service department was more interested in getting a 10-star consumer satisfaction rating than in solving my problem. They gave me one-star service.
More recently, I experienced a warranty problem with my car. When I purchased the vehicle, I also purchased an extended warranty from the manufacturer. Unfortunately, when the dealer entered the warranty information into the manufacturer’s computer system, they entered the wrong date and the computer erroneously showed that the warranty had expired prematurely.
Despite the fact that I had the warranty contract, which clearly showed the correct expiration date, the dealer said I had to deal with the manufacturer while the manufacturer said the dealer had to correct their erroneous input. After I spent several days trying to resolve the matter, my car was eventually repaired the day before the actual warranty expiration date.
In both of these situations, I was disappointed because, in a moment that mattered to me, the business with which I was dealing did not take ownership of the problem, making it more difficult to resolve the matter. Either the business did not empower its employees to solve the problem, or their personnel thought it simply wasn’t their problem.
This is reminiscent of how I handled my former client’s situation over 40 years ago. That did not turn out well for me or my employer. I suspect that, if my recent experiences are a typical customer experience, businesses who ignore moments that matter will find sustained success elusive.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.